It’s easy to underestimate Ryan Gosling’s influence on Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly-stylized 2011 adaptation of James Sallis’s novel. Most obviously, Gosling plays the lead part of an unnamed stunt driver, but he was also responsible for choosing the film’s director after attaching himself to the project at an early stage and recommended Beth Mickle as production designer after the two had worked together on the film Half Nelson. Mickle supervised a crew of 40 people that worked 16-18 hours per day on the movie, and along with Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel she helped to create one of the most visually-striking films of the decade so far.
Dane Refn had built up a reputation as a director of tough thrillers with his Pusher series, starring Mads Mikkelsen, before the opportunity to direct Drive came his way. He also directed the excellent Bronson, starring Tom Hardy as the infamous violent UK prisoner Charles Bronson. Gosling feared that Refn would have reservations about the script, given that it was different to anything he had made before, but the director committed straight away.
The quiet, enigmatic Driver is a Los Angeles-based movie stuntman and mechanic by day, and is managed in both jobs by the twitchy Shannon (Bryan Cranston). By night, however, he acts as a getaway driver for hire, giving criminals five minutes of service as he helps them evade police pursuits. When he moves into a new apartment in Echo Park the Driver develops a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos), but this is complicated by the return of Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) after a spell in prison.
Shannon persuades mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to purchase a stock car for the Driver to race competitively. Meanwhile Standard is beaten up and forced to rob a pawn shop in order to pay back $40,000 of protection money owed from his time in jail. The Driver agrees to help Standard carry out the robbery, but both are unaware that the job is far larger, and much more dangerous as a result, than they were originally led to believe.
Drive is a neo-noir, packaged in bright neon pink and shot beautifully. Refn does not waste a single frame, and his use of colour and chiaroscuro make for a sumptuous visual experience throughout, as does the use of a wide-angle lens and fixed cameras. Great care has gone into each shot; you could pause the movie at any given point and spend minutes examining the way the scene has been set up; background, colour, position of actors, camera angle…it appears to be a tightly-constructed movie.
Drive‘s popularity has already resulted in much online discussion of many of its iconic moments, but those seemingly innocuous points in-between are equally impressive to view. Take, for example, the conversation between Irene and the Driver in the diner in which Irene works; it doesn’t stand out on first viewing, as it sits among scenes of violence and car chases, but it is filmed beautifully, with the colour red echoing Irene’s overalls across the screen. As the two converse Irene is filmed against a calm background, but the shots of the Driver incorporate the busy traffic outside, behind his head; this references his work, of course, and also suggests a busy mind at work behind the deadpan eyes.
Refn is clearly happy to wear his many influences on his sleeve, and does not try and disguise them. The film borrows heavily from the 1980s; at times Drive heavily resembles a serious version of the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which itself was a rollicking mash up of 1980s action films, Floridian sunshine, 1980s music and other facets of American culture. (Indeed the comparison with videogames doesn’t end there. The popular late 90s videogame series Driver, based around the exploits of an ex-racing car driver turned detective (while borrowing heavily itself from 70s car chase movies like Bullitt), also appears to have influenced Refn’s film. Though live action adaptations of popular gaming series like Tomb Raider, Prince Of Persia and Resident Evil were already common by the time Refn made Drive, the film arguably represents the first truly credible work that has been influenced by the games industry. For many years the games industry took its cues from Hollywood; arguably Drive signals the beginning of the reversal of that relationship.) Drive‘s synthesizer-heavy electro-pop soundtrack (mainly by Cliff Martinez) sounds as though it could have been lifted from any number of films from that decade. The striking title credits were influenced by the 1983 Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, and they have more than just a suggestion of the classic TV series Miami Vice about them too.
Michael Mann, who produced episodes of Miami Vice for several years and directed the slicker film version, is another apparent influence; Refn’s shots of LA at night from the air could easily be lifted from two of Mann’s LA-based films, Heat and Collateral. However, aside from these, Drive actually shows off a different side to LA than that which cinemagoers are used to seeing. Newer office blocks are generally shot from a distance, and the emphasis is firmly on the city’s more ordinary-looking streets and buildings. Refn was particular about the locations and compositions used in order to keep modern skyscrapers out of his movie as much as possible, which adds to the retro 80s vibe.
Refn’s movie is also influenced by films such as Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point and even William Friedkin’s colourful To Live And Die In LA. However the strong look of Drive – along with its distinctive soundtrack and excellent performances – ensures that there is enough distance from all these influences for it to rise above any accusations of it being a mere magpie’s nest. Yet perhaps the most obvious influence of all is with regard to the character of the Driver. To all intents and purposes he is a modern version of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s famous Man With No Name: a lone, nameless gun for hire, a man of few words, both blessed and cursed by his strong sense of moral decency.
Refn sees the Driver as a superhero, of sorts, even down to his (almost) ever-present uniform of jacket with scorpion emblem, which recalls Spider-Man’s famous chest spider. Following the famous scene where the Driver shares a kiss with Irene before violently stomping a hitman to death in a lift, the camera focuses closely on the Driver’s scorpion, which looks as though it is alive even though it is clearly due to the deep breaths the Driver is taking. In a neat scene later on, the Driver alludes on the fable of the scorpion and the frog while on the phone to Bernie, warning that violence and retribution are in his nature. Up to a certain point in the film the Driver keeps this side of himself hidden, and Irene is shocked when she first encounters one of these infrequent bursts of violence, yet there is still a strong sense of empathy in the character which clearly attracts her.
The camera loves Gosling, and Gosling loves the camera. There is a coolness about his performance as the Driver that recalls Jack Nicholson’s 70s heydey, albeit without the frantic and often unpredictable mania that Nicholson invested in some of his most celebrated roles. It appears to be effortless on Gosling’s part, but is no doubt studied and deliberate; on set the actor and director constantly tried to reduce the number of lines required for the part, making the Driver appear cooler than everyone else on screen and enhancing the atmosphere of the film as a result, but there’s something about the character’s permanent toothpick in mouth that feels a little too calculated. Still, at work in the garage, at home or driving on city streets, the brooding Driver oozes zen calm, and it’s certainly one of the better antihero performances you will find; he may not necessarily say much, but the actor reveals a lot with facial gestures, glances and body language.
Mulligan plays Irene with tenderness, and she has excellent chemistry with the Driver, sharing those glances and half-smiles as the two flirt prior to Standard’s return from prison. The supporting cast does well, too: Cranston and Isaac are fine, and Christina Hendricks makes the best of her small role as Blanche, a woman who accompanies the Driver and Standard on their pawnshop heist. However it is Brooks and Perlman who almost steal the show as the two ruthless old-time gangsters: they shine when trading lines with each other and add true menace when barking out threats to others.
There is a nagging sense when watching Drive that this is a classic case of style over substance, that it is all surface and no feeling. The lack of dialogue doesn’t help the film with regards to that accusation, but it works extremely well as a pulp LA thriller, and it certainly looks superb (Refn eschewed the use of CGI, incidentally). It’s not a particularly taxing movie, and this type of story has been told many a time, but its visual excellence does temporarily dazzle and thankfully the film does not rely on its car chases (although there is a superb one half way through). Refn and co have made a striking film that pays homage to a whole era as well as specific films that have gone before, and Drive‘s world is a pleasing one to immerse yourself in. The production design is unashamedly retro but it is a fresh, punchy hour-and-a-half.
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini, James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac
Running Time: 95 Minutes